Glenwood Area DNR assistant wildlife manager Jason Strege has a unique view when it comes to the annual August roadside counts that pheasant hunters look for each year.

Strege pays close attention to the numbers because of his job, but he’s also an avid pheasant hunter himself. He has seen situations in the past where the numbers in August did not quite add up to what he was seeing a couple months later when out with his dogs in the field.

That’s what he is hoping for again this year after the roadside counts did not paint a favorable picture for pheasant hunters this season.

“I wasn’t surprised it was down. I was surprised it was down as much as it was,” Strege said of the local counts. “I thought it was going to be down just based on what I saw out in the field working, but it was lower than I thought it was going to be.”

The roadside pheasant survey showed a 17 percent decrease in the overall pheasant index this year from 2018. The 2019 index was 11 percent below the 10-year average, and 60 percent below the long-term average. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 37.4 birds per 100 miles of roads driven.

Both Pope and Douglas County fell in the “poor” or “very poor” range on the DNR’s 2019 pheasant hunting prospects map with bird counts between 10-24 birds per-square mile and less than 10 birds in parts of both counties. That’s after Douglas County had some high counts in 2018 and was rated as having “good” hunting prospects a year ago. Strege can’t quite put his finger on the main culprit for such low numbers this year.

“We talked about it a lot in the office here,” he said. “I thought we had a dry enough spring. I thought we had the seed birds. That first of June was relatively dry. We didn’t have the three-day rains that can really knock out some broods. Maybe the roadside counts just didn’t pick up the birds, which can happen. It’s a trend, not a population estimate. I have been pleasantly surprised in the past where August roadside counts don’t turn out real good and then you get out hunting and there’s birds.”

The Minnesota pheasant season opens on Oct. 12 and runs through Jan. 1, 2020. Hunters are likely to find some areas across the state with plenty of pheasants and other areas where the birds will be tougher to find.

“Birds are still abundant in some areas,” upland game research scientist Tim Lyons said in a release. “But after a prolonged winter and wet spring, hunters may need to be choosier about where they go.”

The pheasant index decreased throughout much of the pheasant range, except in the south-central and east-central regions. There, the index grew by 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively, from 2018.

The highest pheasant indexes were in the west-central and south-central regions where observers reported 43 to 49 birds per 100 miles driven. Areas of Yellow Medicine and Brown Counties had the best numbers of anywhere in the state.

Weather and habitat are the main influences on Minnesota’s pheasant population trends. Weather causes annual fluctuations in pheasant numbers, while habitat drives long-term population trends.

Winters that linger can delay the start of the breeding season and reduce the success of early nests. Heavy rain, particularly at or just after hatching, can reduce chick survival.

This year, deep snow cover blanketed most of the pheasant range in February and March. Snowmelt and rainfall in April and May contributed to widespread flooding and estimated hatch dates indicate that nesting activity was delayed over much of the pheasant range. The range-wide hatch date in 2019 was nearly a week later than in 2018, and also a week later than the 10-year average.

“This is just my opinion, but the late hatches tend to be harder to pick up in the August roadside counts,” Strege said. “I’ve seen that in the past where those counts were down and those first two weeks of the season it’s actually pretty tough to ID the roosters from the hens because they’re so young.”

Grant, Douglas, Todd and Otter Tail Counties are on the northern edge of what is considered the pheasant range in Minnesota. That alone makes these birds more susceptible to the variables that drive population trends.

“Absolutely. Any time you get to an extreme part of any animals range, whether it’s birds or mammals, it doesn’t really matter,” Strege said. “As you get to those edges of the range, you definitely get a higher fluctuation in populations, and that definitely could be the case with pheasants.”

The numbers may not show as good of an outlook this fall, but the best indicator will still likely be what hunters see when they actually get in the fields in the coming months.

“It’s a trend. The August roadside counts aren’t a population estimate,” Strege said. “It can capture them pretty good, but it can miss them where birds just aren’t out. I refine my idea of what the population is after a couple weeks of the hunting season on my own experiences and talking to other hunters, as well.”

How DNR conducts the survey

Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 172 25-mile-long routes, with 152 routes located in the pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number of farmland wildlife game species they see. The data provide an index of species abundance and are used to monitor annual fluctuations and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves, Sandhill cranes, and white-tailed deer.